One of the challenges as an adult writing young-adult fiction is making sure my teenage characters reflect reality rather than current television trends. As a middle school and high school teacher, I’ve seen all the stereotypes walk through the halls: the dumb jock, the ditz, the mean girl, the nerd, and any other Glee or Gossip Girl character you can think of. But these kids are much deeper than superficial categories, and the ways they defy their assigned roles make them truly interesting.
Teens can be quick to label others, but I’ve found most hate being labeled or categorized. Many want to read characters who reflect how they see themselves: complex, intelligent, and misunderstood.
Through discussing books and favorite characters with my students, I’ve tried to pinpoint what makes characters “true” to them.
1. Allow characters to make mistakes and learn from them.
Teens don’t want to read about a flawless character any more than adults do. Their favorite characters are the ones who disobey their parents, hurt their friends, or regret a choice and then have to fix the mess they’ve made. I’ve found that my students connect the most to characters who sometimes make the wrong choice regardless of the outcome. The Harry Potter series wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting if the main characters always followed the rules and behaved.
2. Write intelligent dialogue.
Most teenagers hate being portrayed as dumb (unless it’s clear comic relief). Many see wit and sarcasm as a must in dialogue. Teens joke around with their friends, but they also know how to hold a serious conversation. Well placed humor or irony can be used to break the tension. When I was in high school, I loved the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the snappy dialogue was one of the main reasons.
Xander Harris: “I laugh in the face of danger. Then I hide until it goes away.”
I don’t think it’s necessary to try to throw in a lot of slang words for every character since they change all the time, and most the teens I know only use text speak ironically. Last year a student did say, “Did my homework last night, Ms. Ashland, hashtag YOLO,” and I do have several who use “oh-em-gee” as an interjection. I think using slang sparingly can add flavor, but it also dates the writing. By the time a manuscript is completed, the slang in opening chapters could be out of commission.
Portraying text messages in YA lit offers another challenge. Some of my students claim to text in perfect English, but since “gr8”, “cray”, and “dorbs” have all shown up in written assignments, I’m guessing that’s not the norm.
(dorbs= adorable. During the school year, I learn something new everyday)
3. Use stereotypes.
Creating a character who falls under certain labels sets up certain expectations. The best characters defy these expectations from time to time. When I create a character, I always consider the assumptions that might be made about him or her and then add a few details that don’t quite fit. People are complex and what’s on the surface doesn’t always reveal what lies beneath. Teenagers seem to appreciate layered characters who surprise them. It’s part of why The Outsiders is still a hit with many teen readers.
Working with teenagers has definitely given me perspective for my writing, and their insights guide my character creation.
Who are some of your favorite teen characters and what do you love about them?